Chronicle of Higher Education - web daily - August 17, 2000
Gore's Student Supporters Consider How to Keep Campus Idealists From Joining the Nader Camp By BEN GOSE
The Democrats who argue that a vote for Ralph Nader is a wasted vote may find that to be a tough sell among idealistic college students, who don't always warm to the compromises of two-party politics.
Mr. Nader, a long-time consumer advocate and the candidate of the Green Party, the nation's most prominent environmental party, may get from 4 to 8 percent of the vote in the November election, according to polls. Most of those votes are expected to come at the expense of Vice President Al Gore.
Here at the Democratic National Convention, college students who support Mr. Gore fear that while Mr. Nader appeals mainly to a campus fringe, the votes he receives may be enough to hand the election to the Republican candidate, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.
Scott Butler, a convention delegate from Georgia and a senior at the University of Georgia, said that he'd met only a few people on the campus who have vowed to vote for Mr. Nader. Yet even with the vast majority of the 600 members of the campus Young Democrats chapter rallying behind Mr. Gore, Mr. Butler realizes that Mr. Nader could be a deciding factor.
"The support that Nader is drawing could just be what it takes to give Bush the margin he needs to win," said Mr. Butler, who is president of the Young Democrats of Georgia, a statewide organization. "Everyone realizes that this race could be decided by just a couple of key states. That could be trouble for the vice president."
Mr. Nader, known for his fights for cleaner air, stronger labor unions, and better protections for rain forests, has been popular with college students since the 1970's, when he helped start the Public Interest Research Groups, which soon set up chapters on many campuses. But his popularity appears to have risen in the past year along with student activism. Large groups of young people gathered in Seattle last year and Washington, D.C., this year to protest the roles of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization in encouraging global capitalism. The Republican National Convention, in Philadelphia, and the Democrats' convention here, have witnessed smaller protests.
"What you're seeing with these protests is one puzzle piece of a growing move of citizens' getting active against the corporate dominance of every level of our society," said Laura Jones, deputy press secretary for Mr. Nader's campaign. "Young people are most disillusioned with the two-party system, and they're excited to vote out of conviction and not fear."
Although Mr. Gore is often identified with environmentalism -- his best-selling book from the early 90's, Earth in the Balance, was an environmental call to arms -- some people feel that he has lost his zeal for the cause during his eight years as vice president. Critics say he has consented to too many compromises on natural-resource development, and has supported free-trade legislation that has included few environmental protections.
Grant Rabenn, a sophomore at the University of California at Los Angeles who described himself as a "solid Democrat," said he's not worried about the student support for Mr. Nader. Mr. Rabenn, a volunteer with the Democratic National Convention Committee, wore a white shirt with a red-and-blue tie Wednesday while assisting reporters on the convention floor.
When Mr. Nader visited the U.C.L.A. campus last year, Mr. Rabenn was turned off by the candidate's anticorporate stance and "extreme left-wing rhetoric." Some in the crowd of roughly of 100 students walked out in disgust during Mr. Nader's speech, Mr. Rabenn said. "The people who will vote for Nader wouldn't have voted for Gore in the first place," he said.
But Rachel Metson, a California delegate who graduated from U.C.L.A. this spring, said that she agrees with Mr. Nader on many issues. While Ms. Metson has been a big supporter of Mr. Gore all along -- "it's more effective to be a part of a large party" -- she knows that Mr. Nader's outsider status could make him even more popular with many young people. "A lot of people my age would rather be on the fringes, rather than part of the establishment," says Ms. Metson, who was sitting just 10 rows back from the podium among the prominently placed California delegation on Wednesday.
At least a few of the 75 student members of the College Democrats chapter at the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of five undergraduate colleges and two graduate institutions, have said they'll vote for Mr. Nader, said Richard Johnson, the president of the group and a volunteer here at the convention. Other students, including some who supported former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey in the primary, may still be on the fence, but Mr. Johnson, who will be a senior at Claremont McKenna College, expects them to toe the party line in November.
"While Nader might be something of a distraction," said Mr. Johnson, "I think that when people actually get down to vote, they'll go with somebody who can get the job done, and that means Al Gore."